Congress has been back in session for less than 24 hours and the two top House lawmakers on defense are already reconciling themselves to what they call a less-than-ideal scenario: A short-term continuing resolution to fund the military and the rest of the government at 2017 levels through mid-December.
That’s a problem because the military is already suffering from an extended readiness crisis that, among other issues, has contributed to a rash of accidents and non-combat deaths across the services, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, said Wednesday at a Defense News conference.
“If we just think about the Navy accidents that have cost the lives of too many soldiers in the past few weeks, we know that in 2015 the [Government Accountability Office] warned that the operational demands on the Pacific surface fleet was short-changing crew training and degrading the condition of the ships,” said Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee. “I can’t say those accidents were inevitable, but I will say that we got warning lights that we were asking too much of our folks and our equipment.”
But Pentagon leaders have repeatedly said that fixing readiness will require predictable and stable budgets, not the ad-hoc stopgaps of continuing resolutions.
“The mission gets done, they salute and and say, ‘yes sir,’ but it comes at a cost,” Thornberry said. “And I’m afraid that not only the Navy accidents, [but] the other accident rates that we see going up, are but one reflection of the cost that is taking its toll.”
The chairwoman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, reiterated that worry later in the day.
“I really do” see a linkage between readiness levels and accident rates, Granger said at the same conference. “There’s something wrong with our readiness that we’re not keeping up.”
But a short-term continuing resolution may be unavoidable. That same afternoon, President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders on the Hill reached an agreement to tie hurricane relief funding to a short-term CR and debt-ceiling extension — both to Dec. 15. Were Republicans to reject the proposal, the path forward is no easier: The federal government’s funding expires on Sept. 30. And while the odds of a shutdown — which, just two weeks ago, Goldman Sachs pegged as likely as a coin toss coming up heads — are decidedly lower after hurricane relief efforts galvanized Congress, there would still be a number of hurdles to clear for a full-year budget. The House has passed four appropriations bills, including the defense spending bill, but just a few of the bills have even made it out of committee in the Senate.
"We're going to be doing the same thing we've been doing, the same thing that got us into this mess, passing a CR, I expect at least until December," Thornberry said. "I cannot hide the fact that I am disheartened and unhappy at this state of affairs."
One possible silver lining for the Pentagon and the innumerable constituents worried about North Korea that Thornberry said he spoke with over August recess: The bill could include plus-ups over CR levels for missile defense. The House Armed Services Chairman floated that idea, however, before Trump stunned his own party by agreeing to the Democratic proposal this afternoon.